Rachmaninoff 150 featuring Yuja Wang (Part 1): The Philadelphia Orchestra

Sergei Rachmaninoff is a quintessential romantic composer and performer whose relationship with the Philadelphia Orchestra was unique. After a dark period of his life, he wrote of them, “Today, when I think of composing, my thoughts turn to you the greatest orchestra in the world.”

While Philadelphia has maintained a high standard since then, I would put this year’s group of musicians up against any in the world and even any in the last two decades of my expansive listening with the possible competition of the Boston under John Williams or Aaron Copland. 

Tonight’s concert solidified this belief in my mind. For the 150th anniversary of Rachmaninoff, we were treated to one of his early concertos, a later concerto, and his most well known composition, “Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini.”

Rachmaninoff’s composition style tends towards transition. More than most other composers, he moves through themes and ideas with the attention span of an eleven year-old boy in gym class. 

The textures and nuances of his concerto No. 2 in C minor exemplify this style. The first movement in this evening’s concerto bounds around the piano breaking to highlight and focus on individual instruments other than the pianist. After a beautiful crescendo closing the first movement, the second movement sweeps in with an emotive nocturne, which, lyrically, was a favorite of the evening. The third movement often comes across as loud and brassy, which is not my favorite, yet the Philadelphia Orchestra under Yannick Nézet-Séguin always seems to smooth out the edges of harsh pieces and refine the muddled parts to clarify, refine, and elevate the music to its highest level. 

You likely know his music. He is one of my favorites to play. His sweeping runs and a depth of feeling comes through his compositions that speaks of his struggles with depression and brings beautiful light to others out of the darkness. The second concerto of the evening is a masterpiece from a then-seventeen year old genius, though the original version was later reworked completely into the form we enjoy today. Rachmaninoff believed the original iteration to be intolerable after the popularity of his second concerto. The piece performed tonight reflected two halves, a young composer and a seasoned veteran. Yet the final product did not feel disjointed, but more like an idea and then explanation in musical form. It’s simple beauty constantly improved by variation and the recognizable Rachmaninoff complexity of his mature composing. 

Yet he was not without great moments of humor. At his time, the world’s most accomplished violinist was Paganini, whose talent was such that it was rumored that he sold his soul to the devil for his skill. It did not help that his name in Italian translates to little pagan. A notorious womanizer, at his death, the Catholic Church refused to bury him by their rites. Rachmaninoff took his most difficult theme and wrapped it into a ballet composition, weaving in themes of doomed love (for Paganini’s relationships), the dies irae death theme of classical music (an ode to his predicted dark life after death), and breathtakingly stunning phases (which are way overused in commercials and movies, cheapening their value until heard in their native element played well). 

This is not a performance to be missed. This series is the hottest ticket in town. The hall sold out for the final performance of this Rachmaninoff concerto cycle which started a week ago with a first ever marathon concert of all four concertos and the Rhapsody played at Carnegie Hall over nearly four hours. (Each of the orchestra members, conductor, and Ms. Wang received a marathon-style medal in the shape of a grand piano after the performance.)

Yuja Wong played with emotionally raw intensity and precision. This evening she demonstrated how deserving she is of her long list of credentials and awards as she (and her fuchsia clubbing dress with black and red stilettos, then shimmering Ferrari red and matching heels) did battle with the orchestra for the audience’s attention. (Perhaps the after party is hopping a bit more than expected!) In the end, it was those in attendance that won. This evening’s performance easily ranks among my top ten of well over three hundred concert performances. The audience rose to feet at the intermission, the close of the performance, and the encore before the final notes resonated through the hall. You can experience this masterpiece by going to SiriusXM (Symphony Hall Channel 76) and listening to the recordings of all three of the Rachmaninoff 150th Anniversary performances by Philadelphia Orchestra over then next few weeks on Mondays at 7 p.m., Thursdays at 12 a.m. and again on Saturdays at 4 p.m. But realize that the difference in hearing these performances live, wrapped in the warm tones of the clear, woody vibrations of Verizon Hall are by far the best way to experience these emotional evenings. It is worth a cross-country trip. 

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